Jurors Speak Out: Yale Rape Acquittal Wasn't A #MeToo Proxy War
Press coverage of the acquittal of former Yale student Saifullah Khan on sexual assault charges has distorted the facts of case, jurors say. Khan’s case—an alleged campus sexaul assault that triggered a police investigation and worked its way to criminal court—concerns an encounter between the now 25-year-old Afghan native and his accuser that took place Halloween night 2015, when they were seniors and dorm mates.
His acquittal brings renewed attention to the flawed Title IX regime on college campuses, finally rescinded last year, and its tenuous relationship to the defining principles of the American justice system, which guarantees due process to criminal defendants. But it reads to many, in the context of the #MeToo movement and its reconsideration of consent, as a disappointing reflection of the movement’s limited reach: “Jurors Bought Stale Victim Stereotypes,” according to one critical headline. “A Yale Student Accused Her Classmate of Rape. His Lawyers Asked What She Was Wearing and How Much She Drank,” read another.
“What’s coming out in the press is that the defense attorney should not have asked about her dress,” juror Jim Galullo, 61, tells me, referring to the accuser’s choice of costume, which Khan’s defense attorney presented as evidence. The prosecution then characterized the line of questioning as a stereotypical slut-shaming: “‘He raped me because I wore the wrong dress,’” as Galullo put it.
Khan’s attorney indeed asked why the accuser chose a sequined cat costume over a flowing Cinderella gown, seeming to suggest that her choice of wardrobe was somehow essential to how the night unfolded. But the costume she choose, “That didn’t factor into it,” says Galullo, of the jurors’ thinking. The jury was more concerned with whether the accuser’s outfit from that night was soiled, consistent with her testimony that she’d spent the night drunkenly vomiting, Galullo says. And when he saw that it wasn’t, “That’s what caught my attention.”
“I don’t like that they’re saying he was only acquitted because there wasn’t enough evidence,” says Elise Wiener, 56, a New Haven native and mother of three who served as an alternate juror. “I liked her,” she tells me, referring candidly to Khan’s accuser. “But I refuse to say [as a defense of the accuser], Why would she lie? Because that’s speculation, that’s not evidence.”
Indeed, according to the evidence presented, the story of what happened between Khan and his accuser is not so cut-and-dry as critics of his acquittal contend. By both accounts—which diverge at crucial points—that Halloween was a loose and boozy evening. It was the accuser’s first time drinking to the point of drunkenness, she claims. She drank so much at an off-campus party that she vomited, lost track of her friends, and wound up at a Woolsey Hall orchestra concert with Khan, who she says had pursued her in the past. They walked back to her room and hooked up.
What he described as a consensual encounter, following an amble through the cemetery, she calls an assault. She testified that she remembers little of the night, beyond passing out on her bed and waking once, with him on top of her. She claimed she was too incapacitated to have consented. Khan and his accuser agree that the next day she was furious at him: “This was a different demeanor,” he said, per the New York Times.
The jury’s decision to acquit last Wednesday hinged on factual inconsistencies, Galullo adds. “Most of us were middle-aged, so we weren’t going to be bamboozled by the antics of a defense attorney.”
It’s ironic to hear Galullo, who doesn’t make a habit of reading websites aimed at millennial women, invoke the jurors’ age, since at least one critic of Khan’s acquittal has claimed that older jurors are a problem. “Older demographics may be more likely to acquit defendants in Khan’s position,” one millennial writer noted in a recent opinion piece on the case, citing social science. The associate who handled the defense’s jury selection told the Times he’d favored over-30s for this reason.
The two-week trial may have played out before a movement backdrop, but it was years in the making: Khan was suspended from Yale November 9, 2015—a week after his accuser reported him to an administrator, who in turn reported him to the police. Wednesday’s decision, the product of a multi-year criminal investigation, highlights the procedural gulf between campus sexual assault adjudication and criminal procedures. Khan’s suspension from Yale, without a hearing, was almost immediate while proving guilt in a court of law, quite appropriately, demands a far stricter standard.
Proven inconsistencies turned his head, says Galullo, who has a daughter in college himself. “She testified that she was dragging her leg and he was holding her up,” he tells me. But surveillance video of the two of them leaving the concert showed an entirely different picture: “Once we blew the frames up and ran loops, three, four, five times, clearly that wasn’t the case. We all agreed that she was walking hand-in-hand, arm-in-arm, smiling.”
The video, Wiener says, was presented as the prosecution’s main evidence. “They kept playing the video over and over,” she recalls. “There was this lovely couple walking on this picturesque street. I thought they were going to be witnesses.” The accused took the stand and claimed her leg was dragging as he guided her, “But I watched it and watched it and watched it and her leg wasn’t dragging.”
The judge implored them to consider the evidence alone, not to be swayed by the probable conclusions of popular opinion. “I wanted to believe her, I wanted to believe him. I didn't want to see anybody be hurt,” Wiener says soberly as we wrap up our call. Galullo, reflecting a week later on the outcome, likewise dismisses the socio-political context that gave the case a distracting currency, according to media treatments he considers misleading. In reality, the facts failed her—and the jury had no choice but to acquit. “The only one who know what happened or why was those two,” Galullo says now. “I felt very sad for both of them.”